Military Build-Up in the South China Sea

The South China Sea: From a Regional Maritime Dispute to Geo-Strategic Competition (London: Routledge, 2020; Edited By Leszek Buszynski and Do Thanh Hai), Chapter 12, pages 182–200. doi:10.4324/9780429331480

Posted on RAND.org on January 22, 2020

by Derek Grossman

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Since China announced its expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (SCS) in 2009, the region has become steadily militarized as Beijing seeks to legitimize and defend its claims. Other key maritime counter claimants within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including most notably Vietnam, but also Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, have sought to modernize their naval and coast guard capabilities to preserve the status quo in the SCS. Their improvements, however, have been decidedly miniscule in comparison to Beijing's dramatic military upgrades. Indeed, only Vietnam stands apart from its ASEAN brethren in the depth and breadth of its military modernization to offset China's growing military footprint. Even so, Hanoi remains a very distant second to China. Taiwan—considered by Beijing to be a renegade province of China—has also been quietly upgrading its military infrastructure in the SCS. And major powers outside of the region, including Australia, France, India, Japan, the UK, and the US, are heightening their military presence in the SCS, though without installing permanent military structures to rival China's expansion. Their activities take the form of periodic joint exercises, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), or both to uphold international law and rules of behaviour.

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